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Seasons Readings: The Electric Woman

We may have started this year's advent blog series with a very Christmassy extract, but for day two, we're taking you to an introductory fire eating class in the USA. Read on for an extract from the prologue of Tessa Fontaine's The Electric Woman.

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The Trick Is There Is No Trick

We start by lighting ourselves on fire. Parts that are easier to put out than our faces. Hands, to begin. Arms outstretched, palms toward the darkening sky, I watch as a flaming torch is wiped across my hand from wrist to fingertips. For one, maybe two seconds, I am on fire. The flame trail is two inches high. My hand warms. It doesn’t burn exactly, but it feels like touching black leather after it has baked in the sun, a heat I impulsively want to move away from. I close my fist around the flame and put myself out.

“What sorts of acts can you do?” the sideshow manager, Tommy, asked.

Before I wrote back, I googled “acts in a sideshow.” I culled a list of what I saw on Wikipedia’s sideshow page: “Juggling. Fire swallowing. Poi spinning. Magic.” I started feeling more brazen. What couldn’t I learn in a couple of months? “Bed of nails. Snake charming,” I wrote. Then, “All animal charming. I’m good with animals.”

“Terrific,” Tommy wrote back. “See you in two months.”

I decided to learn one of the many acts I’d claimed to know, so now I’m in an “Introduction to Fire Eating” class at a fire arts collective in Oakland, California, because, of course, these things exist in the Bay Area. The evening outside the fence does not notice me. Buses sigh, a kid across the street accuses another of a basketball foul, old women roll their groceries behind them. I smell slow-cooking meat and exhaust. This is not a time to pause, close my eyes, and try to remember all these sounds and smells, but I do anyway.

I’d hoped some magic was involved in learning to eat fire. Something that meant you didn’t really have to do the thing it appeared you were doing. Maybe you spread a flame retardant solution in your mouth, like on hotel curtains. Perhaps there was a little machine you wore behind your ear that shot fire-squelching foam onto the flame as it approached your face. Maybe it was an illusion.

But the class is a total disappointment.

There is no trick.

You eat fire by eating fire.

On the first day, Shaina, our teacher, all smiles, says: “Look at my severe burns!” She rolls up her sleeves and points with delight to a series of scars on her arms, like she is identifying constellations for a child. “This was from Japan. This one Rio. Sometimes, you burn yourself really badly in a performance,” she says.

“What do you do then?” I ask.

“You put yourself out and keep on smiling.”

The class is in a massive warehouse full of fire artists. We trudge past the welders and blacksmiths and ceramicists into an outside yard full of huge gas canisters and no smoking, dangerous, and flammable signs. We light our torches. I try not to think about the waiver I signed detailing possible death and dismemberment.

The first lesson: how to put yourself out.

There is only one other student in the class, a video-game designer with small gauges in his ears. I ask him why he’s in the fire-swallowing class and he tells me that he feels too ordinary at Burning Man as a stilt walker. He wants something special. To be special.

Shaina hands me a thick, damp kitchen towel, picks up a can of white gas—the kind you use to refill lanterns on a camping trip, the kind I was never allowed to touch as a kid—and shakes some down both legs of her jeans. There is too much. Whole, fat droplets land on the fabric and soak right in, hundreds of them, a rainstorm from a metal canister never meant for such an offhanded joggle. She flicks a lighter and ignites herself.

Her legs, from midthigh down to ankle, are on fire. She is looking at me, smiling. Waiting. I dive toward her legs with the wet towel outstretched between my hands as she’s saying, with firm encouragement, “Smother, smother, smother.” I’m sure my hands will go up in flames the moment they near the fire. I pat the towel against her legs, up and down, and though I feel a little bit of warmth on my hands, they do not melt or blister. As I bring the towel away, I realize I have, indeed, put Shaina out. “Nice,” Shaina says, and I feel a greater sense of success than I have about anything in a long time. “But that was way too gentle. If I’d really been cooking, I’d be singed by now. You’ll understand the kind of force that’s needed once you have to put yourself out.” It is hard not to picture self-immolation, a body barely an outline inside a small cosmos of flame.

We practice again, this time with Stilt Walker and me really smacking Shaina’s legs with force. We’re winded and flushed and ready for a break, but it’s time for us to get lit on fire.
Shaina tells us to reach out our hands, palms up, like bad schoolchildren in old movies readied for the switch. My heart is starting to pump fast. I haven’t felt any fear about running away with the sideshow until this moment. But Shaina is approaching my skin with fire. Excuses for leaving build in my throat, and though every instinct in my body encourages me to bail, I do not withdraw my palm. It is shaking. My upper lip is coated in sweat.

“See yourself on fire,” Shaina says. “Let the flame dance. And then squelch it.”

She wipes a torch across my skin. My palm is alight. I immediately close my fist and kill the flame.

She hands me the torch.

I hold it in my right hand and dab it to my left palm, but it doesn’t catch. “Longer, firmer,” she says. I try again. I am okay getting the fire to my hand, but keeping it there, pressing it into the flesh, that’s the hard part. It’s also what distinguishes fire performers from children who run their fingers through candle flames. But watching fire rise from your own skin is distressing. Why shouldn’t it be? Evolution has trained us to flee from fire threatening our bodies.

We move on quickly. The next step is to wipe the flame along the top of the arm. “Do not wipe against the underside of the arm,” she tells us, rubbing the blue-veined underbelly of her scar-crossed arm.

Stilt Walker is short and very hairy. The moment he wipes the fire against his arm with a jerky, nervous spasm, a wide swath of hairs instantly coils and blackens, then disintegrates. “My hair!” he yells. “It’s burning!”

“Yes,” Shaina says calmly. “It is.”

He is wide-eyed and trying his hardest to fake a smile. I look down at my blond arm hair and imagine it growing back in thick black tendrils, like poison fairy-tale vines. I take a deep breath and wipe the torch across the top of my arm. Heat spreads as all the hairs take flame and are quickly singed.

“Let it burn!” Shaina yells as I suffocate the flame too quickly. I wipe my hand across my arm. Smooth as a baby’s.

“In Turkey,” Shaina tells us, “a barber singes his customer’s face after he shaves it for ultimate smoothness. They find it relaxing.”

I touch my arm again. I would not say this is relaxing, but there is something satisfying about how quickly we’re building intimacy with an element most people fear. With an element that, just twenty minutes before, I’d been scared of. But here I am. Letting it rise on me.

Next, it’s time for the tongue. Because he is a human with naturally developed survival instincts, Stilt Walker does not get the flame all the way to his tongue the first several tries. His tongue is stuck as far out from his body as it can go. I can see the muscles at the base of it quivering with effort. His neck is taut and the thin tendons protrude with strain. He turns the torch toward his mouth and lowers the flame. It is a foot away, six inches, four, then moves swiftly away from his face with a flame trail like a comet. He laughs nervously, shakes out his neck, and resumes his pose, head tilted slightly back, tongue out, a lizard midcatch. He begins lowering the flame toward his tongue again. Somehow, he’s trying to back his body away from the flame at the same time he is bringing the fire closer to his face. Again, it’s five inches, three, one inch away, and a retreat.

It’s not surprising. Shaina tells us nobody puts the fire right into her mouth, right onto her tongue. There are too many years of learned behavior in the way.

At the end of his turn, Stilt Walker has attempted five or six times and brought the flame very close. I’m impressed, though my stomach clenches a little each time, worried for his face.

“Your turn,” Shaina says.

I dip the torch in fuel and shake it out, and Shaina lights it. I’m sure I won’t get it all the way in. She has demonstrated the movements a few times. I replicate what she’s done. I widen my legs into a triangle, arch my spine, tilt my head back ninety degrees, bring the torch up above my face a foot or so and, with a dramatic turn of the wrist, beeline it right into my mouth.

I touch the torch to my tongue for one second and then pull it back out toward the sky.

“Jesus Christ,” Shaina says. My mouth tastes like camping. My lips tingle. “You just lit your tongue on fire!” she says, and this is the only time I can imagine that being a congratulatory exclamation. I bring the still-lit torch back above my head, angle my wrist, and bring it down straight into my mouth again.

“Wow,” Shaina says, laughing. “You don’t have many instincts for self-preservation.”

I consider telling her the whole story, then think better of it. The backs of my teeth feel a little sooty on my tongue.

Oxygen feeds fire. If you succumb to impulse and attempt to blow out the flame as it nears your lips, you have forgotten about chemistry. An hour later, when I learn to swallow two torches at once, my desperate attempt to blow out the fire does not, in fact, succeed in extinguishing the flame but instead collects more oxygen that grows the torches into a huge fireball that engulfs my hands. It hurts. It burns. Shaina describes the most common types of burns—the kinds you get no matter what, no matter how careful you are in this line of work—as bad sunburns. I am now in a tradition of performers and mystics and childhood pyromaniacs; I will honor them by burning myself as infrequently as possible.

As soon as the class is over, I can tell my mouth is burned. Shaina says this is normal. Patches of my face and arms are reddish and tender. And there is cracked skin, almost like little dried-out blisters, on the corners of my mouth. I have a blind date after my class. It looks like I have herpes.

I avoid remembering this while I’m in the fire-eating class, but I used to be a chicken. My childhood memories are haunted by feeling too scared to do anything—from taking out the garbage at night to striking a match for incense. I watched all the other kids act brazen and bold, as I stood at eight years old, twelve, seventeen, upset with how much I did not want to be the person I was becoming. Later, I told people that I willed myself to stop being a fraidy-cat, but I think, as these things go, we develop personality traits when we need them.

For my whole life, I have been scared, terrified, of losing my mom.

I am losing my mom.

While I’m standing among explosive containers on a quiet Oakland night, she is humming at a nurse in one of her daily therapy sessions, because she no longer has language. While I am running a flame along my palm, she is running her hand across the half of her body that can no longer move. She touches it a lot, the paralyzed side. Perhaps it doesn’t feel like it belongs to her. She touches everything around her. Kitchen table, fork, husband, we say as she touches those things, to let her know they still belong to her, too. Wound, we say as she touches her head where it was opened after her brain would not stop bleeding.

She is a yes person, a woman of adventure. When I begin to doubt that I can pull this off, I stop and think of her.

The only way to do it is to do it.

There is no trick.

Tessa Fontaine

Tessa Fontaine